No Christmas cinema celebration can avoid White Christmas, and even though it is not as wonderful a film as several others on our watch-list, we still enjoy it every year, primarily because of Irving Berlin’s songs (not just the title tune) and Robert Alton’s choreography. Of course, we also enjoy the good range of character actors, and some interesting Astaire connections, which we will explore below.
The screenplay by Norman Krasna, who also wrote the script for Bachelor Mother (1939), may be sentimental, but it also has an effective structure. Both the script and Michael Curtiz’s direction capture the wistful memories that form the core of the song “White Christmas” and its special meaning to the troops overseas during World War II in 1944. During both the opening and closing rendition of the song, Curtiz’s camera sweeps over the crowds to capture the faces of soldiers remembering home during the hardships of war, the same band of brothers re-united remembering their now cherished past, and finally a pair of buddies and sisters creating memories of new love.
After the end of WWII, two Army friends, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, become show business headliners. While ending a tour of their latest hit in Florida, they plan to head back to New York City to rehearse a new show but meet the Haines Sisters (Betty and Judy), another song and dance act, and romance blossoms. Instead of New York, they head to Vermont, where the sisters are booked for the ski season. But there is no snow in Vermont, and the near bankrupt inn is owned by their former commanding officer. To help their old general, Wallace and Davis move their next show’s rehearsals to the inn and then decide to invite the whole army division to the opening night to celebrate the general. One of the sisters (Betty) mistakenly comes to believe that Bob is using the general’s troubles to get free publicity for the show and quits both the musical and her budding romance. When she learns the truth, she returns for the Christmas Eve opening. The successful gala closes with snow finally falling in Vermont for a white Christmas.
The film begins on Christmas Eve 1944 and ends on Christmas Eve ten years later. More than almost any other Christmas film the focus is on memories evoked by the holiday (and by the song).
Percy Helton (the train conductor) is the link to yesterday’s film, Miracle on 34th Street. Born in New York City in 1894, Helton started in vaudeville with his actor father, then started appearing on Broadway in 1906 as a juvenile, where he worked with famed directors George M. Cohan and David Belasco. In one role, which required extended screaming, he permanently damaged his vocal chords, giving him a raspy voice that distinguished him for the rest of his career on stage and screen. He had roles in films such as A Star Is Born (1954), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Call Northside 777 (1948). He had an extended role on TV as Homer Cratchit in The Beverly Hillbillies (1968-69). As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Fred Astaire remembered Helton fondly as his sponsor for membership in the prestigious Lambs Club, saying years later “When I was made a Lamb, I felt as if I had been knighted.”
Sig Ruman (the landlord) is the link to tomorrow’s film, O. Henry’s Full House (1952), so we will save details about his career for that post.
Dean Jagger (General Waverly) had numerous fine roles in such films as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Twelve O’clock High (1949). He had an extended role in TV’s Mr. Novak (1963-65).
Mary Wickes (Emma) will be seen soon as Nurse Preen in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). On the big screen she appeared in such films as Now, Voyager (1942) and The Mayor of 44th Street (1942). On the small screen she had extended roles in Make Room for Daddy (1956-58) and Dennis the Menace (1959-62).
George Chakiris appears as one of the male chorus dancers in the Carousel Club “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” number. He had appeared as a dancer in such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Brigadoon (1954) and The Country Girl (1954). His break-out role came in West Side Story (1961) as Bernardo, for which he won an Oscar as best supporting actor.
Grady Sutton (guest at inn party) has already been seen in a small role in the film In Name Only (1939).
Herb Vigran (Novello, the Florida night club manager) will also appear in tomorrow’s film, O. Henry’s Full House (1952).
Fred Astaire was offered the role of Phil Davis in White Christmas, but he rejected it, probably thinking that he was too old for another side-kick role opposite Bing Crosby and not wanting to do what might seem a re-make of Holiday Inn. Donald O’Connor was also considered for the role, but it instead went to Danny Kaye. Astaire had extensive connections, both past and future, with other members of the cast and creative team.
Vera-Ellen appeared as Astaire’s dance partner in two under-appreciated films Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952).
Barrie Chase plays the delicious role of the long-legged chorus girl Doris(“Mutual, I’m shure”) in White Christmas. A year later she would have background dancing role in the “International Playboy” number in Astaire’s Daddy Long Legs (1955) and then would have a more extensive dance role as Gabrielle in the “Too Bad (We Can’t Go Back to Moscow)” number in Astaire’s last musical, Silk Stockings (1957). She then became Fred’s last regular dancing partner in an four TV specials, beginning with An Evening with Fred Astaire (1959) and continuing through The Fred Astaire Show (1968), and several episodes of The Hollywood Palace (1965-66), a TV variety show similar to The Ed Sullivan Show, that Astaire co-hosted in 1965 and 1966.
Robert Alton worked extensively with Astaire for more than a decade doing choreography for You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Easter Parade (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and The Belle of New York (1952).
Herb Vigran played a night club owner again in Fred Astaire’s Let’s Dance (1950). He appeared with Astaire as one of the men on the train at the beginning of The Band Wagon (1953).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
The night club scenes, the extended train trip, hints at New York City, the inn are all elements that we enjoy in any film. We also engage the back-stage glimpses both in Florida and Vermont, as well as those massive truck-size TV cameras in the Ed Harrison TV show sequence. But finally it’s the music from the Irving Berlin songbook that brings us back to this film every year.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
AMC is running the film so frequently during the next week that it will be hard NOT to see this film.